You may be familiar with Maine’s gorgeous coastline, with its craggy cliffs and rocky beaches. But Maine’s waters have a different story to tell. Since the 18th century, Maine’s ports have been home to international trading operations, and elaborate shipbuilding industries that supported them; before that, Maine’s First Nations tribes used these waters for fishing and travel. Today, this history is evident in part through fleets of historic ships, lovingly preserved and sailed with pride. Along the coast, museums and monuments have been dedicated to the workers and sailors who kept this industry alive. And even the disasters of the coast—a historic shipwreck on a foggy night—have blended with the landscape to become part wreckage, part art. Here are some of the best ways to explore the history of Maine’s coastal waterways.

The museum’s historic “caulker’s shed”, once used by Charles Oliver to store tools for shipbuilding.
The museum’s historic “caulker’s shed”, once used by Charles Oliver to store tools for shipbuilding. Courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum

Maine Maritime Museum

By the mid-19th century, Bath had become the nation’s fifth largest seaport, thanks in part to its thriving shipbuilding industry. Today, the town on Maine’s midcoast is home to the state’s largest maritime museum. Originally formed in 1962 as the “Marine Research Society of Bath”, it took over an old shipyard in 1975 that was donated by the owner. Today, it remains the only intact shipyard site in the United States that built large wooden sailing vessels. Now the museum encompasses a 20 acre campus, including the shipyard as well as a Maritime History Building. They offer exhibits and interactive activities that highlight Maine’s maritime history, and allow visitors to get up close and personal with historic ships.

This canoe is hand-made from birch wood by the Wabanaki people.
This canoe is hand-made from birch wood by the Wabanaki people. Walter Bibikow, Mauritius Images GMBH / Alamy Photo

Reis Education Canoe

Birch bark canoes were long integral to the Wabanaki people—Indigenous populations who’ve lived in present-day Maine for centuries. Constructed of old-growth birch trees, the handmade vessels traversed Maine’s oceans, rivers, and lakes to transport fish, game, and Wabanaki themselves across the water-pierced landscape. But with the incursion of colonizers and the felling of Maine pineland, the skill of birch bark canoe-building was nearly lost by the 20th century. As one canoe in Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum attests, however, this ancient indigenous craft still lives with us today. Built in 2013, the Reis Education Canoe was the first birch bark canoe handmade by the Wabanaki in over a century. As with the art of basket weaving, this is an important indigenous craft to carry into the future.

Today, the shipwreck offers a serene place to explore the rocks and contemplate the island’s rough tides.
Today, the shipwreck offers a serene place to explore the rocks and contemplate the island’s rough tides. Photo from Shutterstock

D. T. Sheridan Shipwreck

Ten miles (and a ferry ride) off the coast of Maine lies Monhegan Island. Hiking trails weave through the island’s mossy forests, and seals splash in the waves below steep cliffs. Since 1850, the Monhegan Island lighthouse has directed boats around these cliffs, but on November 7, 1948, a dense fog around the island caused a diesel-propelled tug boat, the D. T. Sheridan, to run aground. All of the members made it to safety, but the ship remained for good on the island’s rocky shores. And in the 1970s, a large storm caused the rusted carcass of the D.T. Sheridan to shift another 50 yards inland. Today, visitors can sit upon the wreckage to watch waves crash upon the rocks of Lobster Cove and watch the local seabirds swoop and soar.

The fort is green with overgrown plant life, which adds to its charm.
The fort is green with overgrown plant life, which adds to its charm. Richard Craven via Wikimedia

Fort Gorges

In Casco Bay just off of Portland sits a defunct military fort that has been converted into a public park. After the war of 1812, several fortifications were proposed to protect Portland’s harbor from perceived foreign threats. The largest of these was Fort Gorges, a D-shaped granite fortress modeled after Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. By the time of its completion in 1864, the Civil War-era design was completely obsolete, as its cannon holds were far too small for modern guns; the fort sat empty and unused for nearly 100 years.

The City of Portland acquired the fort from the federal government in 1960 and transformed it into a public park. The city’s website states the fort is “open for exploring at your own risk.” Despite the fort’s park status, the city in no way maintains it, so it feels a bit abandoned. A local organization offers guided tours, and seasoned open-water kayakers can visit on their own. Or just hop on a boat tour of the bay.

Two windjammers out on the waves.
Two windjammers out on the waves. Photo by Fred LeBlanc

Windjammer Cruises

The Maine Windjammer Association is the largest fleet of traditional tall ships in the Americas. Windjammers, or merchant sailing ships, have multiple masts, large ships that once carried cargo but today mostly carry passengers. The Windjammer Association operates out of the town of Rockland, in midcoast Maine, and offers multi-day, overnight sailing excursions on their fleet of historic vessels. These trips offer the opportunity to see these majestic boats up close, to learn to raise a sail and even help the crew if you like. This is sailing 19th century style, and an excellent way to see Maine’s coast from the water.

Just a sliver of the Penobscot Marine Museum’s campus.
Just a sliver of the Penobscot Marine Museum’s campus. Thomson200 via Wikimedia

The Penobscot Marine Museum

The Penobscot bay and the river that feeds it have long been home to many working waterfronts, from Rockland to Belfast. Searsport’s Marine Museum (open seasonally) celebrates this history and the people who made it possible, with a collection of old boats, exquisitely detailed scrimshaw, paintings, and ship models. Similar to the Maine Maritime Museum, the Penobscot museum encompasses a number of buildings, including old sea captains’ homes. Permanent exhibits include a photography exhibit on the local fishing trade; and an exhibit on the “rusticators”, vacationers who flocked to Maine at the turn of the 20th century and commissioned local builders to fabricate small wooden boats for day trips and picnics.

The observatory towers over its Portland neighbors.
The observatory towers over its Portland neighbors. Shutterstock

The Portland Observatory

While it may look like a lighthouse placed a little too far inland, the Portland Observatory was originally built as a communication station for the city’s harbor in 1807. It was one of the earliest marine signal stations in the United States, and is the only one still standing today.

The Observatory was a commercial venture, designed by Captain Lemuel Moody to give a competitive edge to ship owners who paid a subscription fee of $5.00 a year. For this, they would receive an alert whenever their sailing ships were arriving in port. This greatly increased the efficiency of Portland Harbor and the observatory remained a working marine signal tower run by the Moody family until 1923. The invention of the two-way radio made the signal tower obsolete. During the warmer months, Greater Portland Landmarks offers tours of the tower.